Country’s president promises ‘stringent measures’ and claims Nato troops ‘stirring’ in Poland and Lithuania
Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has ordered his defence minister to take “stringent measures” to defend the country’s territorial integrity after mass protests against his claim to election victory.
The 65-year-old, who said he won a sixth presidential term with 80% of the vote in the 9 August ballot, made the comments on Saturday while inspecting military units in Grodno, near Belarus’s border with Poland, according to the president’s press service.
Lukashenko denounced the recent mass protests, which he said were receiving support from Western countries, and ordered the army to defend western Belarus, which he described as “a pearl”.
“It involves taking the most stringent measures to protect the territorial integrity of our country,” Lukashenko said.
Opposition figurehead Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the election, said Lukashenko’s comments were an attempt to “distract attention from our inner problems”.
Tikhanovskaya urged pro-democracy protesters to keep up the momentum, saying Lukashenko had “no choice” but to engage with the opposition.
“I am so proud of Belarusians now because after 26 years of fear they are ready to defend their rights,” she said in Vilnius, on the eve of what are expected to be mass protests in Belarus on Sunday.
“I call them to continue, not to stop, because it’s really important now to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights. They have to understand that we are not a protest movement. We are people of Belarus and we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more.”
Lukashenko’s visit to Grodno came ahead of large-scale military exercises planned in the region between 28-31 August.
The former collective farm director said that Nato troops in Poland and Lithuania were “seriously stirring” near their borders with Belarus and ordered his troops into full combat readiness.
Both countries denied the accusation, while Nato called the claims baseless. “As we have already made clear, Nato poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region,” it said in a statement.
Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, told AFP: “The regime is trying to divert attention from Belarus’s internal problems at any cost with totally baseless statements about imaginary external threats.”
The Polish president’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, dismissed the claim that Poland planned to violate Belarusian territorial integrity as regime propaganda, calling it “sad and surprising”.
“Poland … has no such intention,” he told the Polish news agency PAP.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry announced that US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun will visit Vilnius and Russia next week for talks on Belarus and the election fallout.
He is planning to meet with Tikhanovskaya, her representatives told AFP.
Opponents of Europe’s longest serving leader have organised strikes and the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country’s recent history to protest his re-election and demand that he stand down.
The opposition has called for a major rally in Minsk on Sunday, after more than 100,000 people flooded onto the streets of the capital and other cities in Belarus last weekend demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.
The European Union this week rejected his re-election and vowed to levy sanctions against what it said was a substantial number of people responsible for rigging the vote and cracking down on protests.
The Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the opposition’s coordination council, whose members are seeking new elections and a peaceful transition of power.
Lukashenko has rejected the idea of holding another ballot, dismissed calls to resign and accused the opposition of attempting to seize power.
On Friday he vowed to “solve the problem” of the protest movement.
Tikhanovskaya said this week that Belarusians would “never accept the current leadership again” after the crackdown on post-election protests.